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Northwest Ohio Summit to End Homelessness underway

Communities can replicate Milwaukee County’s reduction in chronic homelessness through a “housing first” model that requires buy-in from all sectors, an architect of the Wisconsin county’s effort told Toledo area leaders on Thursday. 

The Northwest Ohio Summit to End Homelessness kicked off two days of programming about the “Milwaukee Housing First” approach to ending chronic homelessness, defined as people continually homeless for at least a year or have had at least four episodes of homelessness in three years.  

“We firmly believe once an individual’s basic needs are met, they can focus on treatment, they can focus on jobs, and the things we would all like them to focus on,” said James Mathy, housing administrator for the Milwaukee County Housing Division. 

“If you don’t have a place to live you’re not going to show up to work or take care of yourself until those needs are met.”

The Milwaukee Housing First model emphasizes immediate access to stable housing and social services, and support to keep chronically homeless people in housing. Since the effort began in 2015, Milwaukee County has seen a 85 percent reduction in chronic homelessness — a figure now down to about two dozen people county-wide.

Because of the additional challenges to keeping these people housed, such s prior evictions, criminal records, and substance abuse, buy-in from community leaders is crucial, he said. Officials found 100 percent of housing first clients had behavioral health or alcohol or other drug needs, a figure they expected to be high but were still surprising.

Clients are not obligated to receive case management to be housed but have access to those resources, Mr. Mathy said.

Partnerships with police, mental health and addiction services, and businesses have bolstered the effort’s success and helped build political will to support it, he said. 

It’s reduced costs for hospitalizations, jails, court costs, and police response, Mr. Mathy said, meaning the $6,300 it costs on average to keep a client housed for a year more than pays for itself.

And people are staying in the program, which has a 97 percent retention rate, although Mr. Mathy said it can take several moves within the system to find a good housing fit for clients. 

“When you’re trying to do this system re-design and you’re talking about where is the money going to come from, the money is there but you have to look at it in another way,” he said. 

But Mr. Mathy warned against moving forward without specific goals. 

“The last thing I would like you to do out of all of this is form another homelessness task force, commission....[or] a plan that sits on the shelf that nobody pays attention to,” he said. 

Michelle Isaacs, president of the Toledo Lucas County Homelessness Board, said Toledo-area leaders are committed to pursuing this model and effecting real change. 

“We are at a point from the board that we’re ready to make some big changes and seek to collaborate with community partners,” she said. “This is an issue for all of us, not just a homelessness board issue.”

The board served about 3,200 people in its last fiscal year — from October 2016 through the end of September 2017 — including 389 classified as chronically homeless.

The conference continues Friday for Toledo leaders to discuss objectives and goals to move forward, Ms. Isaacs said.

Contact Lauren Lindstrom at llindstrom@theblade.com, 419-724-6154, or on Twitter @lelindstrom.

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